New Zealand Division Moves up to Katerini
New Zealand Division Moves up to Katerini
1 This section was soon afterwards withdrawn to join 1 Armoured Brigade; A Company 4 Field Ambulance, which had an ADS for that brigade in the Veroia area, returned to Katerini. The detachment of this company from the Division by the ADMS 80 Subarea was yet another example of that casual use of New Zealand units which always worried General Freyberg. See p. 137, note 1.
On the route itself, whether the units went by road or by railway, there was a succession of plains or river valleys separated by ridges that were often high and always formidable. There was little choice of movement. The passes that had once been forced by Persians and Macedonians were the passes through which engineers had constructed railways and through which the battalions of the Commonwealth were to advance and retreat within the next few weeks.
The first stage of the journey was along the Sacred Way from Athens to Elevsis and then north through the hills to the defile of Citheron and the rolling vineyards outside the historic town of Thebes. Here the streets were pink with almond blossom and the famous springs gushed water at every fountain head. Beyond the town the road turned west and the company went up the valley to Levadhia, where it halted for the night. In the gorge beyond that picturesque town men had once consulted the oracle and found the waters of Memory and Forgetfulness.
Next day they moved on, with Mount Parnassus dominating the landscape to the west and great ridges rising to the north. In another age the company would then have turned north-east to the gap between the ridges and the sea which is known as the Pass of Thermopylae. At its narrowest it is wide enough for a road but for little else; there is the shingle beach on one side and 500-foot cliffs on the other. In its more open stretches the scene becomes enchanting: caiques may be anchored close in to the shore; the cliffs are still precipitous and the road is fringed with tall pine trees. In the open country to the north there is the village of Molos, the blue sulphurous stream from Thermopylae, the ancient aqueduct and then the silted plain with the Sperkhios River and the straight road to Lamia.
The railway and modern highway do not use the Pass of Thermopylae. They follow the more direct route to the north-west across the range by way of Brallos Pass. Those who went page 125 north by train remember the slow climb up the valley, the shaded gorges with stands of oak and pine, the succession of tunnels, the great bridge1 across the Asopos River and the run out across the Sperkhios valley to the west of Lamia, a town at the foot of the Othris Range. Sixth Field Company and other road parties recall the succession of curves by which they climbed above the gorges and the railway bridges. The hillsides were a mass of vegetation: myrtle, broom, thyme, Judas trees, wild olives and mountain oaks. The crest of the pass was in a world of pines and firs: ‘—it was a wonderful sight from the top with the road zig-zagging downhill in hair-pin bends, straightening out at the bottom and making a bee-line for Lamia at the far side of the plain. At every village the people gave us a wonderful reception— threw flowers, waved and cheered, and whenever we stopped, brought us wine and eggs. All the schools were closed for the duration, and the children were there in hundreds.’2
The Othris Range beyond Lamia was the next obstacle. The railway line followed the north side of the Sperkhios valley and broke through the hills past Lake Xinias to the south-west corner of the plain of Thessaly. There was a second-class road running eastwards round the coast to Volos, a port from which a narrow-gauge railway and a bad road went through the hills to Larisa, the key town of Thessaly. The main highway ran between these two routes. Climbing north over scrub-covered hills, it reached the plain about Lake Xinias and then went over another ridge near Dhomokos to the undulating country about Pharsala and on to the plain of Thessaly, almost bare of trees, but well cultivated, studded with small villages and encircled by high mountains.
2 Capt M. S. Carrie, Adjutant NZE, extracts from personal diary.
3 On 28 February 1941.
The route for 6 Field Company lay across the plain and up through the forested foothills to the crest of the pass. Mount Olympus was now to the south of them, white with snow and often obscured by clouds. Below them at the head of the gorge was the village of Ay Dhimitrios, where No. 1 Section remained to improve the road. In the next ten miles the forest changed imperceptibly from fir to pine, to oaks and beeches, to plane trees and finally to the shrubs of the foothills. Here No. 3 Section was left to ease corners, construct passing bays and generally improve the surface of the road which the engineers thought ‘wasn't so bad, … the main jobs were widening a few of the hair-pin bends and some of the culverts, but it was a pretty tricky road much like some of the back-country roads in New Zealand, and a big change from Egypt.’1
Company Headquarters and No. 2 Section then continued on their way across some 12 miles of undulating country on which shepherds watched flocks of long-tailed sheep and farmers ploughed the open fields for crops of maize and tobacco. A straight stretch of road lined with poplar trees took them into Katerini, a flourishing country town with a market square, a railway station and public gardens. The engineers, and for that matter the whole Division, had not yet been issued with bivouac tents so they were billeted2 in houses and public buildings. In this case it was only for two days, the men finding it much more convenient to be back at the base of the pass, where they worked until their services were required after the arrival of 4 and 6 Brigades.
The next unit to leave Athens was 18 Battalion. The road party with the transport vehicles left on 12 March, followed the route of the engineers and reached Katerini the following evening. But it was different with the main body of the battalion: the rifle companies and the Bren-carrier platoon. They started the fashion for the majority of the Division and went up by train, leaving Athens on 13 March and reaching Katerini twenty-two hours later.
1 M. S. Carrie, diary.
2 No troops were billeted after 15 April. The prices for a room in a village had not to exceed 18s. 3d., in a town 18s. 9d., a month. The bills were paid direct to the householders by the unit pay officers.
In Katerini the battalion spent several days waiting for instructions. The companies marched and trained; the transport platoon shifted road metal for the engineers; and in the evenings the rank and file enjoyed the hospitality of the township, sipping ouzo, a close relative of vodka, and sampling such wines as krassi and mavrodaphne.
By this time General Freyberg, having returned through the now snow-covered passes, was discussing with the Greek commanders the boundaries of the divisional sector in the Aliakmon line and studying with Colonel Stewart the defence positions for 4 Brigade. The final decision was that the brigade should move beyond Katerini and fill half the gap between 19 Greek Motorised Division on the coast and 12 Greek Division in the mountains; 6 Brigade when it arrived would go to the west of 4 Brigade and take over the rest of the sector. In other words, the brigades would share a front of 12,000 yards, much of it along low ridges studded with oak saplings.
For 18 Battalion this meant the end of its pleasant sojourn in Katerini. On 18 March it moved out, A and C Companies to cover the demolition parties in Olympus Pass, Battalion Headquarters and the other companies to Mikri Milia, a village in the open country between Katerini and the Aliakmon River. As the other battalions had already left Athens, they appeared shortly afterwards and went straight to their respective areas. Twentieth Battalion, which arrived on 19–20 March, had to prepare positions at Riakia, a village three to four miles west of 18 Battalion. On 20–21 March 19 Battalion, as brigade reserve, arrived to assist the other units and to replace the companies which 18 Battalion had sent to the pass.
1 Draft narrative 18 Battalion, pp. 51–2.